Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fairbanks to Sue Over Redistricting Plan

According to a story in the Fairbanks Newsminer by Christopher Eshleman, the Northstar-Fairbanks Borough voted 8-1 at 3am on Friday to file suit against the Alaska Redistricting Board's plan.

The main concern in the piece seems to be House District 38:
Local government will sue the state over redistricting plans that some argue would inappropriately and illegally dilute Ester and Goldstream Valley residents’ voting power.

Proposed maps would, among other things, link much of northwest Fairbanks with a slice of the Bering Sea coastline — and include everything in between — in one of five sprawling House jurisdictions proposed by the Alaska Redistricting Board.

Click to make larger and clearer
 Sprawling districts is nothing new to Alaska.  The last redistricting plan included District 6 (covering much of the new District 39 but without going to the coast) which was the largest state house district in the US - and probably bigger than a number of states.  But given Alaska's huge size and tiny population, this is inevitable.

The above map is from the Redistricting Board Website.  You can see that House District 38 (the S is the Senate district - it's paired with the Bethel district 37) goes from the Fairbanks suburbs out to tiny off-the-road-system, honey-bucket-hauling villages like Wales.  It also, conveniently (if you're a Republican) gets a chunk of liberal Fairbanks voters and sticks them into a basically Native (and Democratic) district and out of the Fairbanks mix.

One can easily make the argument that this district is not socio-economically integrated as the state constitution requires.

But Board attorney Michael White has told the board that the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) trumps the state constitution and that they needed the Fairbanks voters to get 38 big enough  (all districts have to be as close as possible to 17,755 people) and that they had to keep nine Native districts or they would be in violation of the Voting Rights Act.  They'll argue that they couldn't do this without taking a chunk of Fairbanks voters.  And due to the complicated balancing system used to determine 'Native Districts' taking Democrats would require a lower percentage of Natives.  [It's complicated. Here's a post that goes into these issues in detail.]

This map shows how Fairbanks was divided into house (numbers) and senate districts (letters.)  House Districts 1 and 4  and then 3 and 5 could have been paired for Senate seats.  Then 2 and 6 could have been paired and no incumbents would have been paired.  The board did not make saving incumbents one of their principles (though they discussed it.)  In some cases pairing incumbents is inevitable as it was in Southeast where one house district was lost due to population loss.  But otherwise incumbents shouldn't be paired. At least that was my conclusion after testimony in a public hearing where the person said, "If my rep is fired, it should be by the voters and not by the board."

My understanding is that other groups such as Alaskans for Fair Representation and the Rights Groups (the Democratic Party) were able to get nine Native districts without pairing urban dwellers with villagers who ride four wheelers to the pond out of town to get drinking water in buckets. 

Another issue I didn't see raised in the article is related to political gerrymandering, which is illegal, but hard to prove.  The plan brought to and approved by the board by board member Jim Holm of Fairbanks, pairs two Fairbanks Democratic Senators in a single district and then leaves a third open district.  It is hard to believe that the two Democratic Senators couldn't have had their House districts paired so that each would have been in his own district.  And it's hard to imagine that this wasn't done intentionally.  Mind you, I can't get inside the heads of the board members so I don't know their intentions.  But I do know that a lot of Republicans would like to end the 10-10 split in the state senate and regain the majority for the Republicans.  Pitting the two Fairbanks Democrats bumps off one right there, all that is needed to regain the senate.  There is an infinite number of ways that these lines can be drawn, and I just can't imagine that they couldn't find a way to make reasonable maps that would have kept both Democratic senators if they had wanted to.

But I didn't see anything about that in the Fairbanks Newsminer article.

The fact that a law suit is going to be filed doesn't mean much by itself.  This has happened in nearly all (possibly all) the prior redistricting processes.  Someone is bound to be miffed by how the districts end up.  But the basic questions the courts will ask, as I understand this, are:
1.  Does it violate the law?
2.  Was it possible to do it differently so it wouldn't violate the law?

If any of the plans submitted by interested groups were able to do meet all the standards without violating the law, then the Board wasn't, the court will take a dim view of the Board's plan.


  1. "Board attorney Michael White has told the board that the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) trumps the state constitution....."

    So does federal subsistence law, and the state ignored that. Parnell needs to make up and mind, and be consistent- either the Alaska Constitution comes first when it comes to conflicts with federal law, or it doesn't.

  2. Tim, Apparently the Parnell administration rejects science and the law in favor of their own policy decisions. But White is a private attorney on contract to the Board which does not report to the governor. White knows that the courts - at least in Alaska - still defer to the law and not the governor's policy.

  3. I asked Jim Holm about why the Fairbanks senatorial line that puts both Senators Thomas and Paskvan in the same district follows along a very straight line (possibly along a highway or something like this) except for one very small rectangle cut out of the otherwise straight line. It was clear to me that Holm did not want to have a conversation about this. He mumbled something about "getting the deviations right" and then left me in his dust.

    Holm has a guilty conscience about this. At the very least, he is unwilling to have a reasonable and professional conversation about this particular situation.


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